Book Club: Fact and Fiction

I’ve been reading a lot more lately, now that my day job requires less actual writing and editing, so I thought I’d share a few thoughts/reviews on what’s been on my reading list: Zeitoun, The Shipping News, and Losing Our Cool.

Zeitoun (Dave Eggers)

I just finished reading this over the weekend, and I recommend it to most readers. It was the “One City, One Book” selection here in San Francisco, and I think it was a good choice. The writing is clean and clear; very accessible to the average reader. The story is compelling and outraging, and I can see that it might help support good discussions and reflections on some of our country’s real issues. Even as a relatively well-informed person, I learned a lot of specific details about post-Katrina New Orleans, got a front-row seat on some of the ways that general problems played out for specific people, and was shocked by the failures of the legal system to protect the protagonist. The end follows a more journalistic narration of events, which I liked, but what stood out about the book as a piece of writing were: (1) the (romantic/ized) descriptions of the fishing villages, coastal culture, and community in Jableh, and (2) this passage:

“As they made their way home, passing a half-dozen fan boats along the way, it occurred to Zeitoun that he and Frank had heard the people they had helped, in particular the old woman floating inside her home, because they were in a canoe. Had they been in a fan boat, the noise overwhelming, they would have heard nothing. They would have passed by, and the woman likely would not have survived another night. It was the very nature of this small, silent craft that allowed them to hear the quietest cries. The canoe was good, the silence was crucial.” (p 109)

It struck me, when I finished the book, that this is also what good, long-form journalism strives to do. Writing is also “a small, silent craft,” and without getting too maudlin about it, good reporters can allow “the quietest cries” — the stories of those without much voice of their own — to be heard. I don’t know much about Eggers, but having also read What Is the What and knowing a little about 826 Valencia, it seems to me that this interpretation isn’t reading into the work too much, either.

The Shipping News (Annie Proulx)

Now this — this, was a book. I have always considered myself an avid reader, but since leaving college, I have shifted most of my reading attention to nonfiction, magazine journalism, and whatever the book club was reading this month. Sure, I’ve read plenty of other things, but nothing I fell in love with — nothing that made me think: “This is what good writing looks like.” Until I read this.

If you haven’t read the book, I’m tempted to describing the story as a late-bloomer’s coming of age story. That’s a little vague, though, so here’s what the publisher says: “When Quoyle’s two-timing wife meets her just desserts, he retreats with his two daughters to his ancestral home on the starkly beautiful Newfoundland coast, where a rich cast of local characters and family members all play a part in Quoyle’s struggle to reclaim his life.”

But what impressed me about the book was Proulx’s writing. Her mastery of subtlety was impressive:  weaving a story of complex character change and transformation into a sometimes bizarre landscape full of legend and twisted history, without creating something cartoonish or twee; the realism of the interactions between children and adults (and particularly adults’ interactions in front of children were finely turned); the ability to convey internal, deeply personal transformation in many characters without writing much about their thoughts (the old “show, don’t tell” advice to writers was well heeded here); and the richness of the landscape she was able to craft with just a few landmarks — I could probably draw you a map of the town, as I read it, from memory. Truly impressive.

Losing Our Cool (Stan Cox)

I noted, back in August, that I was reading this book, and it didn’t take me three months to read it — so I’m a little rusty on the details, but it still seems worth recapping. I cracked this book for the first time when San Francisco was experiencing a rare heat wave, and I posted to Facebook about it. Here’s a summary of the responses: “ZOMG, WTF, No AIR CONDITIONING? Masochist! San Francisco snob! Try living in the South!”

That’s precisely the attitude that Cox tackles in the book, plowing through pages and pages and pages of data to look at whether we really are better off with air conditioning, in what contexts, and what some alternatives to refrigerated buildings and automobiles might be.

The case he presents against air conditioning builds aggressively, drawing evidence from all corners: urban planning, sociology, biology, health sciences, worker comfort and productivity, and more. He argues that it makes us less comfortable (especially in extreme climates, where it create high levels of contrast between air-conditioned spaces and non-air conditioned spaces), less healthy (he traces many sick building syndrome symptoms to cooling systems), and more isolated (pointing to air conditioning as a factor in the shift of home activity from outdoor spaces to indoor ones, although he acknowledges that AC was more of a catalyst than an agent).

His solutions section, while thinner than I’d hoped, pulls no punches. He pooh-poohs the idea that alternative energy can support continued air conditioning use, argues that energy-efficiency and technical improvements have short-lived positive impacts and can in fact result in increased energy consumption in the long run, and takes to task the existing targets for achievement on energy efficiency, alternative energy production, and greehouse-gas reduction. Conservation — consistent, enforced, and society-wide — is at the core of his proposed cooling methods. Here’s a passage I saved to accompany this review:

“Many of these approaches are simply more energy-efficient methods of cooling and/or dehumidification. As such, they are vulnerable to rebound and backfire, and can never be more than partial solutions. Incorporating technical efficiency and energy conservation into indoor climate systems can not, by itself, ensure progress toward sustainability in the society at large. We will need comprehensive limits on consumption in the form of material and energy limits on individuals, households, and businesses with no licenses to pollute being sold. The limits will have to be agreed upon and enforced society wide. Most of the tactics that follow represent steps reversing wasteful energy use but each will then have to be incorporated into a strategy for pressing on much further.”

Like I said, no punches pulled.

While I’m inclined to say “hear, hear!” about the conclusions that followed, the book was a stark reminder of why solutions that meet this criteria are so hard to build support for.

The book, like the conclusions, depends on complex, data-heavy analysis; builds from a conviction that there is a long-term problem that needs to be solved immediately; a willingness to question the status quo and to give up on a technology that we’ve come to love; and — frankly — it’s kind of boring. This is not a book for your average reader, but here’s to hoping that it inspires others to write about, promote, and/or engage with these issues in a way that is more accessible to the rest of the world. So far, it’s got reporters on the case. Here are some press coverage/reviews worth checking out: Grist, Salon, and NPR.

Don’t want to read review, but think I’m reading interesting things? Check out my Goodreads profile.

One response to “Book Club: Fact and Fiction”

  1. […] few years ago, I read a book that I couldn’t stop talking about: “Losing Our Cool,” by Stan Cox. One of the […]

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